Tag Archives: Middle Ages

On the rehabilitation of serial killers Elizabeth Báthory and Gilles de Rais

I’m confused.

First, while researching my book on female murderers I discovered that notorious serial killer Elizabeth Báthory (1560 – 1614) in reality probably never killed 600 girls, not even a hundred, perhaps not even one.

Portrait of Elizabeth Báthory

Portrait of Elizabeth Báthory

It was just a ploy to steal the fortune of the richest lady of Hungary, say new sources I’m inclined to believe.

And then yesterday I researched Gilles de Rais (1405 – 1440) and here too historians offer a rehabilitation of the gruesome knight, one-time brother-in-arms to Joan of Arc. In the words of Fernand Fleuret writing in Le procès inquisitorial de Gilles de Rais, maréchal de France:

“Let me begin by pointing out that I’m not the first who dared doubt the impudent crimes of pseudo-Bluebeard, or who was simply struck by the strangeness of the procedure. There was before me King Charles VII, the Benedictines, Voltaire, Charles Lea, Vizetelly, Salomon Reinach, Gabriel Monod and Charles-Victor Langlois.” (tr. JW Geerinck)

Fleuret concludes that de Rais was “an innocent victim of one of the most heinous judicial machinations of history.”

There are no certainties anymore.

I wonder what Georges Bataille said on the guilty/not guilty question of Gilles in his book The Trial of Gilles de Rais (1965). I know that at the time of publishing The Tears of Eros in 1961 he still believed de Rais guilty, citing with relish the most-quoted passage:

“lesquels enfants morts il baisait, et ceux qui avaient les plus belles têtes et les plus beaux membres, cruellement les regardait et faisait regarder, et se délectait, et que très souvent, quand lesdits enfants mouraient, s’asseyait sur leur ventre et prenait plaisir à les voir ainsi mourir, et de ce riait.” —Fleuret

English translation:

“when the said children were dead, he kissed them and those who had the most handsome limbs and heads he held up to admire them, and had their bodies cruelly cut open and took delight at the sight of their inner organs; and very often when the children were dying he sat on their stomachs and took pleasure in seeing them die and laughed.” (tr. Jean Benedetti)

One of the reasons that historical trials are so unreliable is the use of torture. How much is a confession worth if it was obtained by torture? What is the reliability of such a forced confession?

While cycling to my local library I realized that there are limits to historical revisionism. There can be for example, no denying the Holocaust, although strangely enough many people continue to do so.